Ethics of the Untranslatable: Role of Public Policies in Creating Justice for Indigenous Languages (II of IV)

Part II of our UN Forum series on Global Justice for Indigenous Languages

In his impassioned speech during the first session of our symposium, Chief Wilton Littlechild described the trauma of his upbringing in at the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta. These schools, which Chief Littlechild described as a “legislative form of assimilation,” were meant to “kill the Indian in the child.” There, students were given a number instead of a name, and in that way robbed of their identity as speakers of their mother tongue. Aboriginal activists like Chief Littlechild have included the right to use one’s traditional name as part of their legislative agenda, which also includes the right to understand and be understood during legal proceedings. For example, he said that if your language only has words for murder and death, how do you explain the concepts of First Degree Murder, Second Degree Murder, Manslaughter, etc.? “It’s like you half-kill somebody…” he suggested, facetiously.

The other speakers on this panel also brought up the issue of what is untranslatable in diverse ways that reflected the concerns of their own communities and organizations. Luis Males from Ecuador brought up the success of indigenous Amazonian communities in maintaining the survival of their languages. These languages are healthier, he said, because their speaker communities are so remote, and there is something about the “untranslatability” of the environment. Mariam Aboubakrine from Mali brought up the example of a concept of modesty that doesn’t make sense when translated, and said that some ideas must be conveyed in indigenous languages.

From left: Dr. Elsa Stamatopoulou moderating, with UNESCO representative Irmgarda Kasinskaite-Buddeberg, Izhoran representative to the UN Dmitri Harakka-Zaitsev , UNPFII representative Mariam Aboubakrine, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Wilton Littlechild, and Ecuadorian researcher Luis Males.

Their presentations cast light not only on the systematic disadvantaging of indigenous language speakers, but also the ethical dimensions of the untranslatable, or the untranslated. Names cannot be translated into numbers, and legal or ethical systems cannot be translated into other legal or ethical systems. At least, not without some degree of assimilation.

Indeed, this idea of assimilation is fundamental to the way we think about what is translatable, and what is not. Consider this excerpt from positive psychologist Tim Lomas in Scientific American:

“Words carve up the world into digestible pieces, thereby rendering it comprehensible. They then allow us to cognitively engage with these pieces: to create mental representations, and to articulate and discuss them. As such, an ‘untranslatable’ word alerts us to something in the world that English speaking cultures might not have noticed, or not analysed with much detail, but which another culture has picked up on. However, here we see the value of English – indeed all languages – being a melting pot: it is able to embrace and assimilate these untranslatable words (which, in the process, acquire the status of loanwords). In doing so, their meanings may shift slightly, and some nuances might get lost along the way. But without doubt, as English absorbs these words, it unequivocally gets richer and more complex. And our understanding and experience of the world is enriched and deepened accordingly.”

It is the “value-added” function of untranslatability that is the focus of Lomas’ piece. An untranslatable word alerts us like a metal detector to undiscovered knowledge that English could then “embrace” or “assimilate” (Which one is it? Is there a difference?). We need not concern ourselves over the “shifted meanings” or lost “nuances” of these words (in other words, precisely what makes them “untranslatable”), but it is the richness (and here we cannot help but read this materially) attributed to English that enriches the world (!) as well.

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This notion of enriching the target language through translation was mentioned famously by Walter Benjamin in the seminal essay “The Task of the Translator.” Benjamin writes, “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” Benjamin’s translator is thus also engaged in a process of cultural mining and assimilation, of giving access to meaning “exiled among alien tongues” and “liberating” it in the act of translating it into a native language. Here, the notion of “native tongue” begins to take on valences not only of one’s mother tongue,

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but of one’s birthright, one’s home, one’s nation. We also might question the appeal to a “pure language”—who has access to it? Who speaks it, and for whom does it speak?

What would it mean to translate without regard for the “pure” audience? Gayatri Spivak gives us one suggestion: a translator must surrender to the text, in a way that shows her love for it. “The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.” Spivak seems primarily to be arguing for an ethics of the practice of translation, but I think we might extend it to help us think about the issue of indigenous language communities and their invocation of untranslatability. How do we surrender to, rather than conquer these languages? How do we translate for indigenous authors, and not for English audiences?

One possible method might be to return to Chief Littlechild’s discussion of the robbing of indigenous peoples’ names and the centrality of this issue to the cultural identity of those peoples. Names have often been considered untranslatable; as Derrida writes:

“Telling at least of the inadequation of one tongue to another, of one place in the encyclopedia to another, of language to itself and to meaning, and so forth, [Babel] also tells of the need for figuration, for myth, for tropes, for twists and turns, for translation inadequate to compensate for that which multiplicity denies us. In this sense it would be the myth of the origin of myth, the metaphor of metaphor, the narrative of narrative, the translation of translation, and so on. It would not be the only structure hollowing itself out like that, but it would do so in its own way (itself almost untranslatable, like a proper name), and its idiom would have to be saved.”

To Derrida, even the origin myth of untranslatability is untranslatable. He suggests this is because “Babel” is a proper name, and proper names are untranslatable because they are not language. “One would then be tempted to say first that a proper name, in the proper sense, does not properly belong to the language; it does not belong there, although and because its call makes the language possible.” But “Babel” is a special proper name, or noun.

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Taking every word as a name would require a radical shift in perspective regarding what language is and what it does. Photo by Juhasz Imre on

Babel is also called “confusion,” and therefore is not only a proper name (“the reference of a pure signifier to a single being—and for this reason untranslatable”) but also a common noun which suggests the “generality of a meaning.” Derrida then deconstructs all possible meanings of Babel — from the “confusion of tongues” and the “state of confusion in which the architects find themselves with the structure interrupted” to the possibility, suggested by Voltaire’s knowledge of “Oriental tongues,” that Babel refers to the name of God himself.

What if we considered language, a language, or all languages, to be constituted of proper names? What if we regarded each word with the weight and respect and, indeed, love, due to a marker of one’s individual and communal identity? What might such an “untranslatable” translation look like?


By Chloe Estep, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice at Columbia University.  Global Justice for Indigenous Languages: A Symposium event was hosted on April 21st, 2018, organized by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in collaboration with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and the Permanent Mission of Ecuador to the United Nations, New York.



  • Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Trans. Harry Zohn. The Translation Studies
  • Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Derrida, Jacques. “Des Tours de Babel.” Trans. Joseph F. Graham. Difference in Translation. Ed.
  • Joseph F. Graham. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation.” Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993. 1
  • Lomas, Tim. “The Magic of Untranslatable Words.” Scientific American. 12 July, 2016.




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